In his book, The Mystery of Christ, Father Thomas Keating writes that “The principal purpose of all liturgy, prayer and ritual is to bring us into awareness of [Christ’s] interior Presence and union with us.”[i] In the Church’s liturgy, this Presence is communicated by three dominant metaphors: Light, Life, and Love. In the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Cycle the focus is on “Light.” In the Lent-Easter-Ascension Cycle the focus is on “Life.” In the Season of Pentecost the focus is on “Love.” In Keating’s words, “As the divine light grows brighter, it reveals what it contains, that is, divine life, and divine life reveals that the Ultimate Reality is love.”[ii]
Advent is the time to prepare for the renewed coming of the Light of Christ into the world through us. So, how do we get ready? How do we allow the Light within and around us to illuminate the world?
Our Scripture readings offer some timely clues. To begin, we have to remove the cover of darkness that obscures the Light. The prophet Baruch instructs the people of Israel living in the darkness of exile: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”[iii] We indeed can wear our suffering like a cloak, pulling it up over our heads such that we can no longer see the Light shining in the darkness.
How easily our grief can come to define us, narrowing our perception of reality to what we can see through the narrow lens of loss! We are still collectively in shock over the terrorist attack in San Bernardino earlier this week. The senseless murder of fourteen people – many of them social workers committed to serving people with disabilities – is heart-breaking. That such action could be done in the name of religion is maddening.
Already we are hearing the drums of war, calls for the closure of Mosques, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and even the creation of a registry and monitoring off Muslim citizens. Our sorrow and anger are legitimate, but if we wrap ourselves in it too tightly, our vision will become warped by the lens of fear. Fear will define us, leading to either the paralysis of despair or violent reactivity. Eventually, we have to remove the garment of sorrow and affliction and refuse the identity of victims, embracing instead the beauty of the glory of God that shines through us. We must allow the Light to shine through the cracks, so that we can claim our true identity, the name that God desires to give us: “Just Peace, Godly Glory.”[iv]
Here, what is required is a deep and abiding trust in God’s promise: “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that comes from him.”[v] Don’t let the garment of sorrow and affliction rob us of joy! It is only in the Light that we can see the mercy and justice of God that heals our wounds and secures our joy. Get ready for the Light!
John the Baptist, like all the prophets, also reminds us that getting ready for the Light requires repentance. Repentance can seem scary. Trusting God’s promise gives us the courage to do the work of personal and cultural transformation necessary to become transparent to the Light. This work is deeper than just saying “I’m sorry.” It has to do with uprooting the cultural programming we have internalized, letting go of the prepackaged value systems and preconceived ideas that confuse lesser lights with the glory of God. “Repentance” literally means to get a new mind. Getting ready for the coming of the Light requires us to change our minds, individually and collectively.
In light of recent events, I can’t help but think especially of the glorification of violence in our culture and the way we have internalized it, made it seem normal. The kind of terror unleased in San Bernardino is not qualitatively different from that unleashed at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs or at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. It results from a similar scapegoating dynamic: demonizing those who are different from us through a violent rhetoric of hate promulgated through social media and other venues, claiming a false sense of righteousness justifying violence, and enacting a racist, sexist, and nativist narrative of divine retribution.
Just yesterday, the New York Times noted that since 2001, 45 Americans have been killed by radical Islamic terrorist violence on U.S. soil, while during that same time 48 Americans were killed by right-wing, White Supremacist terrorists.[vi] The culture of violence isn’t just a foreign import. It is made in America too.
We don’t like to hear this, but the events in San Bernardino are the mirror image of our own society’s shadow side. When we repent of our violence and trust the power of forgiveness to make the world new, then “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[vii] Get ready for the Light!
A spiritual practice is essential to this work of personal and communal transformation. St. Paul provides us with the example of “constantly praying with joy . . . that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best . . . having produced the harvest of justice.”[viii] Prayer and meditation cleanse the lens of perception so that we can see and act in the Light. Praying for the realization of the Light in others helps us to let go of selfish preoccupations and attend to the healing of the world. Setting our desire on overflowing love and action based on spiritual insight is joyful work!
David Nicol calls this spiritual practice “subtle activism.” “Just as personal inner work requires making contact with our deeper nature [which Christians name “Christ”] by stilling the more superficial layers of our personality and working through the limiting beliefs and behavioral patterns we have inherited through our personal histories, so too collective transformation requires realization of our collective identity [as the Body of Christ] and making conscious the wounds and limiting beliefs of our collective history.”[ix] Prayer and meditation help us to see clearly and act wisely. They unite intention and action informed by truth and love. They help us get ready for the Light!
What might such a collective practice of getting ready for the Light look like? Consider the example of Sri Lanka, a nation that was torn apart by a bitter civil war in which some 100,000 people died. On March 15, 2002, more than 600,000 Sri Lankans came from every part of the country to the sacred city of Anuradhapura to participate in the world’s largest peace meditation. After a few brief spoken prayers by representatives of various religions, the massive crowd was guided into a simple mindful breathing meditation. For one hour, more than half a million people settled into deep, silent, stillness.
Joanna Macy, an American peace activist who participated in the event, called it “the biggest silence I ever heard . . . This is the sound of bombs and landmines not exploding, of rockets not launched, of machine guns laid aside. This is possible.”[x] It would be seven more years before the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. But it wasn’t too soon to get ready for the coming of the Light.
The Light that came into the world is still coming. This is a great Mystery. It is the Mystery of Christ in us, already here, waiting to illuminate the world through us. Cast off the garment of sorrow! Change your mind! Engage the deep, joyful work of transformation! Get ready for the Light! Amen!
[i] Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Christian Experience (Rockport, MA: Element Inc., 1991), p. 17.
[ii] Keating, p. 16.
[iii] Baruch 5:1.
[iv] Baruch 5:4.
[v] Baruch 5:9.
[vi] Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, “California Attack Has U.S. Rethinking Strategy on Homegrown Terror,” The New York Times, December 5, 2015.
[vii] Luke 3:6.
[viii] Philippians 1:9-11.
[ix] David Nicol, “Subtle Activism: Applying Spiritual Power for Social Change,” Tikkun Online Magazine.
[x] Nicol, Ibid.